I‘m midway through what I’m sure is going to be has to be one of my best sexual performances of all time. Head down at my girlfriend’s right shoulder, I’ve just settled in for the long haul: rhythm strong, breathing regular. Then she stops me and says, “Be careful of my smallpox.”
This is a fringe benefit of having sex with a member of the U.S. Army. I raise my head from my girlfriend’s collarbone, careful not to muss the arm of her brown, standard-issue T-shirt. It’s the only thing protecting me from the vaccine: millions of smallpox-virus cells festering on her arm in preparation for Saddam’s purportedly imminent onslaught. I try not to think about a painful, sticky death. She adjusts her sleeve and gives me a wink, and we get back to business. Careful business.
On her left arm, she’s got a hard lump under the skin. “Feel it,” she had said to me over dinner. “That’s typhoid.” She’s had all the vaccines you can get, not including botulism, which apparently isn’t worth worrying about.
The Army tells soldiers not to have any intimate contact with their friends and family after being dosed with smallpox. “No hugging. Do not play with small children. And try not to have sex.” There’s a bit of concern in the officer community of which my girlfriend is a part that they’re going to inadvertently cause a smallpox outbreak that will terrorize America. This is the scenario: A dozen highly contagious officers board commercial airliners destined for points abroad. Shoulders are rubbed. Virus is transmitted.
I’m putting myself at risk. This is sort of a one-last-hurrah thing we’re doing. In less than twenty-four hours, she has to board a commercial airliner and fly to Chicago, England, Kuwait.
She’s only going for a two-week training mission, but with Bush and Powell shooting off at the mouth about imminent threats and orange alerts, we both figure that now is the best time to say goodbye the way adults say goodbye. When she called, I packed a duffle of supplies, told my roommate not to wait up and deployed myself to her army base.
The way I see it, sex with her is my patriotic duty. I can’t send her off to war without one last orgasm. And I have to do a good job. There can be no premature ejaculation, no broken condom. In her bedroom, I have the anxiety of a virgin. Should I perform oral sex? Should I go slow? Fast? Hard? Does it ruin everything if I ask if she came? What does a soldier need to prepare for six months of combat? What about a year in the desert? I think about the fact that she could die. This could be the last fuck of her life.
I am totally unprepared for the pressure.
Next to the bed, there’s a stack of decontaminating bandages. While my girlfriend’s in the bathroom putting her pants back on, I pick one up and scan the instructions. Should your bandage fall off while you sleep, it reads, immediately remove all of your bedclothes and wash them SEPARATELY from your normal laundry. Then, thoroughly wash yourself with antibacterial soap, being careful not to scrape the exposed area. It’s a good thing they didn’t dose her on the butt; I’d have exposed myself a dozen times already. After she returns to bed and we’re lying next to each other (hands at our sides, of course, to avoid any potentially disastrous spooning), my girlfriend asks if I can recognize the symptoms of smallpox. Headache. Fever. Loss of appetite. Nodules all over your skin.
“You’re kidding,” I say. “Right? I haven’t been exposed. Right?”
“It pays to be paranoid,” she says. “I’ll give you the number of an Army doctor, just in case you start showing signs of an outbreak.”
We fall asleep, managing to assume a position in which I’m neither exposing myself to smallpox nor chafing her sore, typhoid arm. During the night, I wake up in three distinct panics. Each time, I check to make sure I haven’t dislodged her bandage. Around four a.m., my arm starts itching, and I’m convinced it’s the pox. I consider waking her up, but figure I probably won’t die before the morning.
And I don’t. When I take my girlfriend and her four duffle bags of gear to the airport, three national guardsmen recognize her as an officer. They rush over and take her bags to the ticket counter. This is a good thing, because even one is too heavy for me to lift. She and I have an awkward moment, standing there in the high security drop-off lane. It wouldn’t be good for her, career-wise, if the other soldiers saw her kissing me, a punk with blue hair and piercings. So we hug, and she promises to write me a letter as soon as she’s settled into wherever she’s going. I promise to send her a mix CD. Then she leaves with the guardsmen to board her plane.
The next day, I’ve got a headache, a sore throat and I don’t feel like getting out of bed. My roommate pops his head in and says, “Oh shit! You’ve got the ‘thrax!”
But I don’t. I just miss her.